ALLUSIONS IN STEVENSON’S THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1886)
(Original article by Philip V. Allingham, Contributing Editor, Victorian Web; Faculty of Education, Lakehead University, Thunder Bay, Ontario – slightly adapted)
An ALLUSION in a literary text is a reference, either explicit or oblique, to a well-known person, place, or event, or to another literary text. The writer explains neither the nature nor the relevance of the reference. Rather, the effect of the allusion depends upon the reader’s knowledge and his or her recognition of the reference. Prior to the twentieth century, authors could reasonably presume that educated readers would recognize references to the Bible and the classics; this may not be the case today. An allusion is an economical means of calling upon the history or the literary tradition that the author and reader share.
Stevenson, brought up in a Presbyterian home, found that biblical allusions were a useful way of delineating good and evil. In the first chapter, for example, the narrator Utterson remarks quaintly that he inclines to Cain’s heresy–he “lets his brother go to the Devil” (e.g., be as dissolute as he likes). The reference to the Genesis 4 functions here not merely as a clever quip, but as foreshadowing, for the good brother (Jekyll) must murder the evil brother (Hyde) to save the world from the actions of a sadist. The irony, of course, is that in Genesis it was the evil brother (Cain) who slew the good brother (Abel); however, the reference is appropriate since Hyde wishes to take over the body and possessions of his elder brother. Indeed, Hyde’s physical deformity, which produces revulsion in anyone who sees him, may be related to his bearing the mark of Cain, the first murderer.
Another biblical allusion is “Babylonian finger on the wall” (a reference to the end of King Belshazzar’s empire, popularized in the expression “the writing on the wall”) However, whereas the eastern potentate’s empire is destroyed by external forces (an invading army), Hyde’s house of cards is destroyed by Jekyll’s conscience momentarily reasserting itself in time to destroy the evil twin with whom Jekyll shares mind and body just as Hyde is about to assume full control.
CONTEMPORARY OR TOPICAL ALLUSIONS
In British-controlled India, at Puri in Orissa, the followers of the eighth incarnation of Vishnu, Jagannath (‘Lord of the World’), annually dragged in procession a statue of the deity on an enormous car, under the wheels of which many devotees are said to have flung themselves to escape the cycle of karma- samsara (reincarnation). Hence, Hyde tramples the child as if he were “some damned Juggernaut.” Hyde is identified with barbaric rituals and an un-Christian religion, with senseless passion, and with suicidal audacity. The exotic, the foreign, the disreputable aspects of Hyde are exactly what attract Jekyll to him, but in attaching himself to Hyde Jekyll assures his own moral and physical destruction.
For the British writer and reader, both schooled in Latin and Greek, such allusions to the history, philosophy, and mythology of Greece and Rome were extremely useful, there being no danger of ‘blaspheming’ by citing scripture out of context or for one’s own ends. For example, Dr. Lanyon likens the early relationship between himself and Jekyll to that of Damon and Pythias, whose friendship was so strong that the former put up his life as bail for the latter, sentenced to death by King Dionysius. The term, then, connotes self- sacrifice and altruism. Although former schoolfellows and fellow medical practitioners, after a lifetime of shared confidences, Jekyll and Lanyon are no longer “Damon and Pythias”; indeed, Jekyll has replaced Lanyon as his bosom companion with his own creation, for whom he is prepared to sacrifice all that he has attained in life, and even life itself. Ultimately, however, Jekyll sacrifices himself in order to destroy the menace he has unleashed upon the world.
The “captives at Philippi” is probably both a classical and a Shakespearean (literary) allusion since, at the end of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar and after the battles at that Macedonian city in 42 B. C., the captives (former supporters of the conspirators Cassius and Brutus) were released by the magnanimous victors, Antony and Octavius, given liberty instead of death as traitors. Hyde is unexpectedly (and undeservedly) liberated from his prison to cause further havoc.
Thus, we may conclude that Stevenson is utilising allusions coherently, to underscore certain fundamental themes of the novella. Although these underlying meanings appear coded to modern readers, they would have been transparent to educated nineteenth-century readers.